Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Monumental City II

In my first installment on the monuments of Washington DC, I distinguished between sites that played a direct role in history versus the ones that are far removed in time and place from the subject they honor. Ford's Theater of course represents the former. It is a site preserved for eternity, just as it was that dreadful night when Abraham Lincoln was shot in his box seat above stage left.

An example of the latter would be the Jefferson Memorial, a building built so long after its intended subject, that even the land it sits upon did not exist in Thomas Jefferson's time. The monument was dedicated in 1943 on the 200th anniversary of Jefferson's birth. To get a more immediate glimpse into the life of the founding father and third president of the United States, you needn't go far. The main building of the Library of Congress, named for Thomas Jefferson, contains the largest collection of Jefferson documents anywhere. On public display you can view a reconstruction of his expansive library. Or you could go down to Charlottesville, Virginia and its environs. There you will find written upon his tombstone (which he designed), his epitaph (which he wrote), noting the accomplishments of which he felt the proudest:
Here was buried 
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
Father of the University of Virginia 
Note the glaring omission.

Jefferson's monument in Washington makes up for that omission, as it sits directly across the National Mall from the White House, separated only by the Washington Monument, equidistant between the two. I don't believe there was ever a monument built in Washington DC that was not controversial for one thing or other and the Jefferson Memorial certainly is no exception. From the Japanese cherry trees that were sacrificed to make room for it, to its not so fashionable (for the time) classical revival architecture, to the out of context quotes on the walls intended to bring Jefferson in line with the administration in power when it was built, this monument never really got the respect, nor the visitors that the other big monuments in the city have enjoyed over the years. It doesn't help that it's a bit off the beaten path, you have to really want to go there to visit it. The one time I did make the trek to visit the great man in his marble mausoleum, frankly I was left a little cold, especially after visiting the Lincoln Memorial down the road apiece.

Fortunately you can appreciate it just as well if not more from a distance. An exquisite jewel box of a building, the Jefferson Monument perhaps is most famous for providing the backdrop in early April for the blossoming cherry trees that line the Tidal Basin. The building couldn't have a finer lineage. John Russell Pope, who built many of the neo-classical landmarks in Washington, designed it to resemble Jefferson's own Rotunda of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which itself was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, for my money one of the greatest buildings ever built. Not having to protect its contents from the elements, the Jefferson Monument is completely open, prompting the viewer from a distance to line up the gargantuan statue of Jefferson by Rudulph Evans within the "sights" of two of the monument's 54 columns of the Ionic order, as I did in the photograph above.

The Jefferson monument is the first familiar building to greet visitors to the city when they arrive by the Metro from the National Airport as the train crosses the Potomac. It completes the quartet of landmark buildings, including  the US Capitol, the White House and the Lincoln Memorial, that radiate around the spindle of the Washington Monument with the National Mall as the east-west axis. It fits in so well with the rigid style and geometry of the city, it would be difficult to imagine Washington DC without it. Furthermore, despite its limited value as a place of historical significance, architecturally speaking, it's simply one of the most beautiful buildings in town.

As they say, if it didn't already exist, someone would have to invent it.

Until fairly recently, except for cherry blossom time, the Memorial was one of the only attractions in West Potomac Park, other than the lovely park itself that surrounds the Tidal Basin, an artificial body of water that serves to regulate the flow of the mighty Potomac. Since 1997, three monuments to great Americans have been unveiled around the Tidal Basin.

The "Stone of Hope"
The most recent of these is the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial which was dedicated in October of 2011. As monuments go, this one is most in the spirit of Mount Rushmore, that is to say, a heroic image hewn out of a block of stone. I touched on it briefly in my first Washington monument post, and in another piece devoted to Dr. King here. But I hadn't actually set eyes on the monument until my most recent trip to Washington last week.

I must say, little surprised me seeing it in person, it pretty much looks just as it does in the pictures. Entering from the north, the visitor passes between two enormous stone monoliths, labeled "The Mountain(s) of Despair", toward a third rock labelled "The Stone of Hope." The names were inspired by a line from King's famous speech at the 1963 March on Washington: "...out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope." Dr. King's likeness standing thirty feet high, is found on the Tidal Basin side of the Stone of Hope. He gazes to his right off into the distance toward the south, arms folded with a rolled up piece of paper in his left hand, perhaps the "I Have a Dream" speech. Extending in a semi-circle off each Mount of Despair are two granite walls into which are carved quotations from the civil rights leader. A stream of water separates the visitor from the wall.

A quote carved into the Stone of Hope originally read: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." Like the quotes on the Jefferson Memorial, this one was taken out of context. Here is the original quote from Dr. King, spoken shortly before his assassination in 1968:
If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.
Critics, including the poet Maya Angelou, claimed the abbreviated version misrepresented King making him look arrogant. Unlike the quotes misrepresenting Jefferson on his own memorial, the original inscription was sandblasted off the stone, which as you can see by the clear slab off Dr, King's left shoulder in these photographs, has been left blank, for now.

If most of the classic Washington DC monuments can trace their influence back to ancient Greece and Rome, the King Monument appears to go farther back, to ancient Egypt. Whether the effect is intentional or not, the two rear stones placed behind the head stone suggest lion haunches, making the whole ensemble when viewed at the proper angle, a little reminiscent of the Great Sphinx at Giza.

The King monument is certainly a powerful tribute to the slain civil rights leader. His image carved in stone by the artist Lei Yixin, has already attained iconic status, at least judging from the number of images of it found on tee shirts worn at the 2013 March on Washington. It is an appropriate heroic monument dedicated to one of the few truly heroic figures of our lifetime, well my lifetime at least.

But I've said it before and I'll say it again, no monument to Martin Luther King, no matter how stately or well executed, will ever be a more powerful and moving experience of the man than standing in his footsteps on the Lincoln Memorial a short walk away, on the spot where he delivered his great speech at the 1963 March On Washington. There, looking out toward the National Mall with the Washington Monument and the US Capitol off in the distance, in the center of the top step leading into our nation's greatest shrine are inscribed the words: "I Have a Dream." Quite often you will find a rose placed near this simple tribute to Dr. King.

No explanation is given, none is necessary.

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, only a couple hundred yards to the west of the King monument, couldn't be more different. Instead of finding a heroic figure cut from a piece of rock, you are greeted by a fragile looking figure wearing a wrinkled suit, and sitting in a wheelchair. The sculpture by Robert Graham of the 32nd president at the entrance to his monument was not part of the original design. The centerpiece of the design is a massive statue of the seated president toward the back of the monument, (see the photograph below), his cape covering up what is presumably a wheelchair. FDR who contracted polio in 1921 and was left paralyzed, famously went to great lengths to keep his affliction from the public. This caused a great debate as to how to portray him in his memorial in a much different time. Even people with strong ties to disability issues disagreed about the proper way to portray FDR, some fearing that showing him in a wheelchair would imply he was a hero simply because of his disability. However the sentiments of those who felt it important to show the president as he actually was, won out, and the Graham statue was unveiled in 1991, four years after the monument opened. On the wall behind the statue are inscribed these words of Eleanor Roosevelt:
Franklin's illness gave him strength and courage he had not had before. He had to think out the fundamentals of living and learn the greatest of all lessons -- infinite patience and never-ending persistence.
The Roosevelt monument designed by Lawrence Halprin, sits on a sprawling seven acre site divided into four sections, each section representing one of the president's four terms in office. Water is a recurring theme in the monument. From a single drop representing the Great Depression to a torrent representing World War II, each section uses a water feature to symbolize the distinct nature of the term it represents. The symbolic arrangement of stones, along with quotes from FDR were also carefully thought out to bring home the point. Topping it all off, each section features works of art relating to the theme of each term, created by a number of artists:

  • George Segal contributed three free standing works to the memorial all dealing with the Depression: The Fireside Chat, The Rural Couple, and The Bread Line.
  • Leonard Baskin created a bas-relief of Roosevelt's funeral cortege.
  • The stone carvings of FDR's and Eleanor Roosevelt's words were executed by John Benson.
  • The above mentioned sculpture of a seated Roosevelt with the cape is the work of Neil Estern who also gave us the free standing sculpture of Eleanor Roosevelt, who deserves, and probably one day will get a monument of her own.
  • In addition to the statue of FDR in a wheelchair, Robert Graham also created a bas-relief of the president waving to the crowd during his first inaugural. Perhaps the most evocative work in the memorial, Graham's thirty foot long relief entitled Social Programs, is comprised of square panels subdivided into smaller squares each one depicting a different program. These panels are repeated in negative form on columns in the center of the section devoted to the Great Depression.  
The Bread Line, by George Segal

Social Programs, by Robert Graham

Roosevelt with his dog Fala, by Neil Estern, the original centerpiece
of the FDR Memorial

Given the choice between the two neighboring monuments, I'd have to say I prefer the FDR memorial to Dr. King's. The artwork in the FDR tribute is more diverse and compelling. Lawrence Halprin wisely chose to keep his creation in a park setting, leaving many of the established trees on the site, adding to its beauty, as well as shading the visitor from the brutal Washington summer sun. While it's a complex, some would say overly fussy tribute to its subject, the FDR monument doesn't command an overburdening feeling of reverence, as its somewhat bombastic neighbor to the east does. The sight of children playing in and around the rocks and waterfalls only adds to the experience as opposed to the King memorial where I saw a woman admonishing two parents whose young kids were splashing in the water, behaving like, well, like kids. And as I grow older, I have come to truly appreciate the addition of benches, where I can sit down and take it all in.

Besides the other, arguably superior monuments that already existed in Washington prior to the building of the Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Memorials, there is another monument to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the city, one that conformed exactly to his wishes. It is a simple marble slab measuring about four by six feet wide and three feet high that sits in front of the National Archives Building. Roosevelt told his friend, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Felix Frankfurter, that he would like a monument to himself measuring no bigger than the size of his desk, and sitting in front of the National Archives building. In 1966, that's exactly what he got.

In my previous posts on the monuments of Washington including this one on a proposed memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, I've noted the trend since the success of the Vietnam Verterans Memorial, to build ever bigger, more complex monuments. One that has bucked the trend is the third recent monument built in West Potomac Park, the George Mason Memorial, dedicated to one of the lesser known founding fathers of this country. Situated near the monument to his fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson,the Mason monument also resides in a park setting. A simple reflecting pool sits before a pergola under which is a bench where a statue of the subject sits cross legged, inviting you the visitor to join him. Faye B. Harwell designed the site and Wendy M. Ross created the sculpture. Stone tablets inscribed with Mason's words sit on either side of the bench. It's an utterly charming monument in marked contrast to its rather pompous neighbors.

Unfortunately it's unlikely that the George Mason Memorial will set a trend for more modest, thoughtful Washington DC monuments, as the ones on the drawing board seem ever more ambitious. As long as the "they have theirs, now I want mine" element runs through Washington, we can expect bigger, more extravagant creations to be built in our nation's capital.

Judging from the latest monuments built in Washington, what the new monuments probably won't be, is more powerful, moving or edifying. Designers could take a cue from the successful monuments of the past, and from the poet Robert Browning whose poem, Andrea del Sarto, called the Faultless Painter, contains the axiom, later adopted by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: "less is more."

On my recent visit to Washington I had revelations of two of the monuments I wrote about in my previous posts that will stay with me for a long time. As I entered the portion of the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial where the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington was taking place, a gentleman who I'd say was in his mid to upper seventies walking beside me had a look of deep concentration on his face. Assuming he was trying to listen to the events taking place broadcast over the distant loudspeakers, I asked him if he could make out who was speaking at the time. Without breaking his glance ahead and slightly to his left, the man said to me: "No, I'm just staring in amazement at that monument over there, it looks like something Hitler would have built." He was looking at the National World War II Memorial, opened in 2002. Although I never made the connection, the man had a point. The pillars, triumphal arches, and water fountains of that monument seem to speak to the glory of war, and little about reflection and loss. Something similar could have indeed come out of the sketchbooks of Albert Speer, the official architect of the Third Reich.

Then after the event on the Mall, I had the rare opportunity to pass by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial while it was closed to the public, due to the festivities.

On a normal day, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people would be standing in front of the wall at any given moment, searching for the name of a loved one, or simply taking in the magnitude of the sea of names representing American soldiers who lost their lives during the Vietnam War. 

Without all the visitors, the interaction between the Frederick Hart sculpture The Three Soldiers, seen on the right of the photograph above, and Maya Lin's Wall on the left is even more striking. Once I thought the interaction of the visitors with the Wall was the only source of its power. But the other day with the monument empty, it took on a new dimension. Like Robert Graham's portrait of FDR in a wheelchair, the statue of the three soldiers was not part of the original design, but added after people objected to the fact that only the dead were commemorated in Lin's monument. 

I believe that as is the case with the wheelchair-bound FDR, the Hart sculpture has become an essential element of its monument, adding the necessary touch of humanity to the work. In the case of the Vietnam Memorial, seeing the three soldiers gazing into the void of the black wall cut into the earth, perhaps looking for the names of their fallen comrades, or even their own names on that wall, is a chilling, yet poignant experience. 

As with seeing the words "I Have a Dream" carved into the top step of the Lincoln Memorial, no explanation is given, none is necessary.

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